The historic opening-up of Southern Africa was achieved on foot, on ox, on horse and steam train. The latter had it inception in the fledgling city of Durban. The precocious and forward-thinking residents of Durban envisioned a time when rail tracks would criss-cross their colony as they did in their homelands back in Great Britain. And so it was in 1860 that a rail track from the sandy spit of land called the Point was constructed, around the northern shore of the Bay of Natal and up to the Market Square in Durban.
Prophetically, the very first steam locomotive was named the ‘Natal’. From this humble start – the ambition of Natalians was to extend the line into the hinterland of the Colony of Natal, something they were to achieve in the next 30 years.
The track was progressively constructed inland from Durban, first to Pine Town, then up Botha’s Hill, where a cutting had to be laboriously blasted and dug into the steep hillside. From above the hill, the line was pushed through to the Natal capital, Pietermaritzburg. From Pietermaritzburg, the line snaked its way inland, past Colenso, reaching the town Ladysmith in 1886.
(above) Colenso Railway Station.
(above) Ladysmith Railway Station photographed during the 2nd Anglo-Boer War.
Eventually the track reached the frontier town of Newcastle in 1891.
(above) Newcastle Railway station.
Map of Northern Natal indicating the road and railway from Newcastle up to Volksrust.
The discovery of gold along the Witwatersrand in the 1880’s made a rail line to the Transvaal imperative. In 1890, the Natal Government Railways after exhausting negotiations with the South African Republic,began the laborious task of constructing the rail line up the escarpment to crest of the Drakensberg to the interior plateau.
(Image below) A Prepaid Parcel stamp carrying the logo for the Natal Government Railways.
The numerous streams and rivers necessitated the building of culverts and bridges and the undulating terrain required the construction of raised and gradually rising railbeds.
(above) An engraving of the railway track leading up Majuba Pass, showing a culvert.
(above) A photograph showing the cuttings and railbeds that allowed the track to rise at a steady incline up the Majuba Pass, 1900.
The distance from Newcastle to the top of the pass (a mere 27 kilometres) required a precipitous climb of 406 metres. The NGR Engineers decided to construct a tunnel under the crest of the escarpment, where the old road to Charlestown broached the escarpment. This pass, called ‘Lang’s Nek’ gave its name to the railway tunnel.
(abpve) Ingogo Railway Station with Majuba Mountain marked with a X.
(above) A drawing of the railway up to Lang’s Nek.
(above) The horsehoe bend in the rail track looking down towards Ingogo from Lang’s Nek.
Wagstaffe & Co. was contracted to build the tunnel, with work commencing in 1890. Tunnelers worked from apposing ends, blasting their way through the rock and earth. The headings met on the 24th of January 1891, allowing the Stone Masons to build fine facings to the tunnel openings. For many years, this construction was hailed as the greatest engineering accomplishment in south Africa.
The tunnel is a full 674 metres long (2213 feet) with a 1 in 70 gradient. 500 men had worked on the passage, removing 195 000 cubic metres of spoil. The cost – 80 000 pounds, a considerable sum in these times.
The track from Lang’s Nek to Charlestown was completed by the 15th of February 1891.
On the 14th of October 1891 Sir Henry Loch the High Commissioner to the Cape and Sir Charles officially opened the tunnel to rail traffic.
(above and below) Opening Ceremony of the railway line when it reached Charlestown. President Paul Kruger of the South African Republic can be seen in the front row seated alongside Sir Charles Mitchell.
Drawing of the railway line, with Lang’s Nek in the background.
At the commencement of the 2nd Anglo-Boer War in 1899, as the Boers under General Petrus Johannes Joubert invaded Natal, the British and Natal Colonial forces fell back to Ladysmith leaving Northern Natal unprotected. Joubert fully expected that the Lang’s Nek Tunnel would be ambushed. He sent a coal truck through the passage and was surprised to discover that the British had not. This allowed the Boers to move trains down the escarpment to supply their burghers who were besieging Ladysmith. This had been a strategic mistake by the British, who were reluctant to destroy the infrastructure of Natal as they fell back. The Boers did not make a similar mistake when they retreated the following year. Every bridge, culvert, reservoir and railway was destroyed, including Lang’s Nek Tunnel.
(above) Photograph os bathing British soldiers below the Ingagane Railway Bridge that was destroyed by retreating Boers in 1900. This bridge lay just south of Newcastle.
The rapid British advance of 1900 prevented the Boers from damaging the tunnel to the extent they wished. They hurriedly dynamited the two entrances to the tunnel before Lord Dundonald and his troops occupied the position on the 10th of May 1900. The British discovered that the tunnel had not been damaged beyond repair, and workers quickly cleared the rubble from the line and tunnel. This allowed trains to supply the British advance into the Orange Free State and Transvaal.
A Steam Locomotive and train ascending the escarpment past Majuba Mountain up to the Lang’s Nek Tunnel, 1903.
This historic tunnel was abandoned in 1984 when a new tunnel was bored alongside the old one.
Script, text and photographs by Graham Leslie McCallum